CHICAGO — DeAmonte Nelson doesn't want to "become another statistic."
The 18-year-old, a recent graduate of North Lawndale College Prep, was eighth in his class and is a Gates Millennium Scholar. He traveled to Ghana and did volunteer work — painting, teaching, building — for a month as a junior.
Nelson said he's motivated to do well by a number of factors. He hopes to succeed, and wants to "be able to say, 'I did it.'" He also desires to leave crime-ridden Austin, the West Side neighborhood where he has lived since he was born.
"Dogs barking, trains passing and the sound of gunshots compose the soundtrack of my neighborhood," Nelson wrote in his application essay for the Mayoral Award. "Not a day ... goes by when I do not witness the selling or use of drugs, the consumption of alcohol or conversation regarding ... someone who was shot."
It was that description — "the fact that he so eloquently describes his circumstances" — that impressed Kimberly Kolb, head of Human Resources and Recruiting for XR Trading.
"He's definitely a young man with a strong vision," Kolb said.
Nelson is also motivated by his mother, Nekol Nicholson, and grandmother, Carol Carr. Because they want him to succeed, Nelson said they won't let him know if they miss him when he leaves for Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif.
"It's getting kind of rough living here on the West Side of Chicago, so I just want him to get away and explore other options," Nicholson said. "So I'm excited for him."
Nelson and his mother split a two-flat with Carr, with whom Nicholson said her son is "very close." Laughing, Nelson said as a single mother she has had to be the "bad cop," enforcing rules and regulations for her son, but Carr got to be the "good cop."
"Her and my mother are always in my ear. They always see my capability, even if I don't," Nelson said. "They push me to strive for more than the average."
It was his mother who kept Nelson from getting stressed when he was a senior in high school and finishing up a project he needed to do well on to graduate, even though she works for 311 throughout the day. Nicholson reminded Nelson to apply for scholarships and supported him as he searched for the right college.
She knew her only child was worth the effort: DeAmonte is smart, Nicholson said, and she can recall him missing only one day of school.
"Even in grammar school, he was always on the honor roll," Nicholson said. "That's why I kept trying to get him into a magnet school because I knew I couldn't afford a private school."
Nelson was visiting Pitzer College when Nicholson received a call from his school saying her son had been named a Gates Millennium Scholar. The program ensures recipients a "good-through-graduation scholarship to use at any college or university of their choice" and is only given to 1,000 students per year throughout the United States.
"Before she could even finish saying it, I just threw the phone and I started running and screaming and crying, and [Carr] was scared. I couldn't even talk. I just pointed ... for her to grab the phone," Nicholson said. "I was just overjoyed, crying, just thanking God."
It was Carr's turn to be surprised when, in June, she was sitting beside Nelson at a luncheon when the CME interns were named. The two had started to grab their things and leave as the first four interns were announced. When they said DeAmonte Nelson had been chosen, Carr dropped her bags in shock.
"They named the first few and I figured I didn't get it," Nelson said. "I didn't see it coming whatsoever."
And though Nelson doesn't work the pits at XR Trading — he focuses on computers — he said he's learning a lot and meeting people who will help him throughout his life. He will pursue electrical engineering and plans to "have no worries financially." Nelson said he thinks he's risen above problems in Austin and will continue to work hard.
"I want to just know that I'm a success, that I'm successful. That I gave it my all," Nelson said.